Top Plant: GEMA: Sticking with the game plan

Rows and rows of CNC machines stretch through the 1.1 million square foot Global Engine Manufacturing Alliance facility in Dundee, MI. Hundreds of yards of conveyors cut a path through – and in some cases over – the manufacturing floor.

By Bob Vavra, Editor December 15, 2007

Rows and rows of CNC machines stretch through the 1.1 million square foot Global Engine Manufacturing Alliance facility in Dundee, MI. Hundreds of yards of conveyors cut a path through — and in some cases over — the manufacturing floor.

GEMA president Bruce Coventry acknowledges the machines and points out the conveyors. Impressive though they are, that’s not what he wants to show off first when touring the GEMA facility.

“We can buy the best CNC machines in the world, but so can our competitors,” Coventry said. “The difference is the people who run them.”

How GEMA uses its own people — and how it contracts for other people it needs to maintain the sprawling engine empire about 20 miles south of Ann Arbor — is the product of studying best-in-class systems anywhere in the world. Not just the best in class in manufacturing, either.

“We can learn something from almost anybody,” said Coventry. “We looked at Wal-Mart for its inventory management system. We looked at Dell for its order-to-delivery process. Mitsubishi has to make its equipment last, so they’ve developed a terrific maintenance process. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) has developed a great information management process.

“In the end,” Coventry added, “it’s really all about execution.”

Investment in people

At a time in manufacturing where skilled workers can be hard to find, GEMA took a hard line when staffing the plant in 2004 ahead of its opening in 2005. The goal was to hire either experienced CNC operators, or workers with a minimum two-year technical degree. “By having a two-year degree and a high-level of technical training, we have people who can identify and fix problems faster than any group of people I’ve ever seen,” Coventry said.

While there are team leaders for the work groups on the floor, there is no first-line supervision. Electrical and mechanical engineers aren’t expected to be in their cubicles; they’re expected to be on the floor with the line workers. “We made the engineers part of the team,” Coventry said. “The teams manage themselves. The level of communications improvement is amazing.”

The reach of Lean manufacturing and the influence of every modern manufacturing strategy is everywhere. Kanban cards are in the parts area. The plant floor is ergonomically sound, with wide aisles, hydraulic tools within easy reach and plenty of light, making all that space seem less spacious.

Poured into that automated and ergonomic infrastructure is a unique schedule that puts workers on four 10-hour days with three crews. This allows the plant to operate six days a week with no overtime. Team members rotate through the shifts on a regular basis — working days during one stretch, then moving to the evening shift or the split shift. There are two outcomes. First, workers get an additional 49 days off during the year with no loss in productivity. Second, absenteeism is the lowest among the partner companies in the United States.

A unique partnership

There is so much unique about GEMA’s emergence from a green field in Dundee to the global center of manufacturing for aluminum block 4-cylinder engines. A joint venture of Chrysler, Mitsubishi and Hyundai, GEMA combines the capabilities of the three automakers and their common need for a standard, fuel-efficient engine. The Dundee plant is one of five global manufacturing plants that make the 1.8-, 2.0- and 2.4-liter engines for the automakers. Chrysler takes all of the engines now, and Mitsubishi is expected to source from GEMA beginning in 2009. Chrysler has just announced its 2.4-liter turbo-charged engine that will deliver 8-cylinder power with a more fuel-efficient motor. That motor is being manufactured for the Dodge Caliber, which is made in the Belvidere, IL, Chrysler plant that was named PLANT ENGINEERING ’s Top Plant in 2005.

The need for economy in these fuel-conscious times extends beyond the engines themselves to the way they are made. “Our core processes are innovation, focus and execution,” said Coventry. “We try to get really good at the things that add value, and challenge every aspect of our business. Execution is our focus on a daily basis. We want to deliver value to our three partners.”

To do that, GEMA sources functions such as tooling and maintenance to outside companies. Yet those companies are integral to and integrated into the GEMA plant. They must go through the same orientation and training, adhere to the same company standards for safety and productivity and meet the same goals of Leaning out the production process.

The commitment to environmental stewardship is also apparent. There is an electrical substation on site, and GEMA is a zero-waste-to-landfill plant. In 2006, for example, GEMA shipped 100 tons of trash for energy recovery. They’ve recycled more than three tons of office paper and 11/2 tons of beverage containers. Scraps of metal are collected and recycled. There is a waste pre-treatment and tank farm onsite operated by the City of Dundee.

One of the more unique efforts was creation of a game built around a paperless plant. Employee suggestions helped reduce paper costs by 25% and saved more than $150,000.

We want to focus on the core business,” said Coventry. “We try to eliminate problems,” he added. “What we look at is: Are we the best at this aspect of our business, or is someone else better at it? We decide if this is an area where we want to have a core competency. If we’re good at anything, it’s solving problems.”

Flexibility is built in

There are several things that are constants at GEMA. The first is the uniform. All team members, from the executive level on down, are in black plants and black-and-white shirts modeled after a NASCAR pit crew. It does give the look and feel of a team.

While there are specialists in many areas, workers also are cross trained to such an extent that Coventry cites the Four A’s of GEMA team members: Anyone, Anywhere can do Anything at Any time.

To accomplish this, new employees who have the basic job requirements and can pass a rigorous four-part evaluation process must also go through an 8-week training schedule that mixes classroom training and a cultural indoctrination with hands-on floor experience. To cap it off, workers must pass an examination after the eight weeks are up.

And yet, this is a UAW facility, albeit with an industry-unique contract that is in place until 2011. With almost 1,200 machines and 216 plant floor employees, GEMA produces almost 500,000 engines a year — and has room to grow as Mitsubishi and Hyundai engines are moved into the production process.

The effort to streamline the operation goes to the engine itself. “We’re trying to drive down the fixed cost base,” Coventry said. “We’ve standardized the machine tools. The engine is built with a modular design. Future design changes can be made with little or no investment.”

Safety is another fundamental at GEMA. Weekly safety discussions and ongoing safety audits accompany GEMA-TV, which provides both a mandatory safety orientation for visitors, as well as a way for management to review safety basics with employees. That commitment has led to zero lost time injuries in the last two years.

In maintenance, team members perform all routine maintenance functions and Premier Manufacturing Support Services, one of GEMA’s sourcing partners, manages the other maintenance cycles. With more than 1,400 preventive maintenance tasks loaded into the plant’s CMMS, maintenance is a constant issue to address the plant’s need for uptime. On a representative month, more than 4,500 maintenance work orders were completed.

Even with all the work, all the complexity of process and automation, there is a remarkable calm that permeates the GEMA facility. Where there is room for improvement, that improvement is sought each day. There is a remarkable amount of cross-pollination of ideas.

With three large automakers depending on the finished product to help them streamline their own cost structure and stay competitive in a global automotive market, you might not expect such calm. But Coventry and his team at GEMA have confidence in the game plan they’ve put forth. Now, as he notes, it’s all about execution.

“We helped our partners to raise their game,” he said, “and they’ve helped us to raise ours.”

Global Engine Manufacturing Alliance

Dundee, MI

By the numbers:

Plant Size: 1.18 million square feet

Number of employees: 444

Number of shifts: three 10-hour shifts

Product produced: Automobile engines for Chrysler, Hyundai and Mitsubishi

Plant opened: 2005

Union representation: UAW

Lost-time accidents in 2006: 0

Plant history:

Ground was broken for GEMA in 2003 and the first engines came off the assembly line on Oct. 3, 2005.